HC Deb 22 March 1967 vol 743 cc1642-56

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [8th March]. That the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth (Solent Forts) Order 1967, dated 9th February, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th February, be approved.

10.59 a.m.

Question again proposed.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)

When we adjourned the debate, a fortnight ago, I was in the middle of making a purely academic point. I was saying that Article 2 of the Order purports to set out the Order's purpose. In fact, it deals with the register of electors, lists of jurors, local government elections, valuation lists and expenditure by local authorities. But the main purpose of the Order, which is to bring St. Helen's Fort and No Man's Land Fort within the boundaries of the County of the Isle of Wight, and Spitbank Fort and Horse Sand Fort within the boundary of the City of Portsmouth is not mentioned as the main purpose.

It is true that that intention is set out in the preamble to the Order. But even so it is stated that the Order arises from a request of the Isle of Wight County Council and the Portsmouth City Council, when we all know that the request originates from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The local authorities concerned have given much thought to the proposals before agreeing to them. The Isle of Wight County Council referred them back to the appropriate committee because it was not happy about the responsibilities it might suddenly find itself with when these forts were brought within its boundaries. Neither the county council nor the Ryde Borough Council particularly want the forts within their boundaries and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an assurance that they will not become a burden on the Island's ratepayers and that, if the Ministry of Defence does not dispose of them, they will be eventually dismantled.

Having said that, I support the Order as a tidying-up operation, which is wise, and would merely make the point that I wish that, in such orders, the main purposes were not obscured by consequential matters. It should also be made clear from which source such Orders emanate. This is a sensible piece of legislation. At the moment, these forts, which were built over 100 years ago when the Government of the day feared invasion by Napoleon III, are in a sort of local authority no man's land. They do not come within the boundary of any local authority but neither are they outside territorial waters. I can see one of them from my bedroom window.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

The hon. Gentleman is lucky.

Mr. Woodnutt

I agree.

The Defence Ministry is intending to dispose of the forts and clearly planning control and the various other matters arising from private ownership must come within the jurisdiction of some local authority. For this reason, I support the Order.

But there is another reason for my support. My constituents, the lusty Vectensians, who are thankful now that their name of Vectus is not to be given to a fort, are natural democrats and view with considerable alarm the totalitarian tendencies of the Government. They are considering seriously a unilateral declaration of independence for the Isle of Wight.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a unilateral declaration of independence on this Order.

Mr. Woodnutt

I was not actually intending to make the declaration now, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are thinking of doing that some time later in the year when these forts are in our possession.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

If that unhappy day should come, the County of Rutland would be glad to join with the Isle of Wight. Then these two small "countries" could join the Common Market and sit in the United Nations.

Mr. Woodnutt

Rutland would be a welcome ally. May I add how much I admire my hon. Friend's voice in this matter. I am coming back to the Order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is interesting to note that the construction of these forts was originally demanded for the defence of Portsmouth against an invasion by Napoleon III 100 years ago. Their construction was recommended in the Report of a Royal Commission set up by Lord Palmerston and published as a White Paper in 1860. It made various recommendations of how best to secure the fortifications of the chief military and naval ports in Britain. Forts on the shoals had been proposed two or three years before, but it was as a result of the Royal Commission's recommendations that these forts and others were built. The cost of the new fortifications to the whole nation—including the four contained in this Order—was £11.8 million.

Lord Palmerston, then an old man, had repeatedly announced that his two remaining objectives in life were the repression of the last remnants of the trade in negro slaves and to leave Britain in a proper state of defence. He was determined that this £11.8 million should be spent, such was his fear of Napolean III. But Mr. Gladstone, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was, as most Chancellors of the Exchequer would be, dead against the project. Many times Mr. Gladstone threatened to resign over the question and, finally, Lord Palmerston wrote to Queen Victoria: It is better to lose Mr. Gladstone than to lose Portsmouth. The forts were built. They have never been any use then or since and that must give some encouragement to those hon. Members on the back benches opposite who violently opposed the "master of foxhounds" a few weeks ago on the size of defence expenditure.

I have one minor criticism of the Order to make. It is about the local authority areas into which these forts are being put. St. Helens Fort is nearer Bembridge than St. Helens and Spitbank Fort is nearer Gosport than to Portsmouth. Possibly, the Minister has been misled by the name "St. Helens Fort". It would have been tidier to have incorporated it in the Isle of Wight Rural District Council rather than in the Borough of Ryde and to have had Spitbank Fort in Gosport rather than in the City of Portsmouth. But I will not quarrel with that. The main point for the Isle of Wight is that it will now have two bastions of defence if they are not developed as casinos or as top security prisons. They may fulfil their original purpose yet.

11.9 a.m.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

I would not want to interfere in what might well be a demarcation dispute between my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett), who addressed us a fortnight ago on the subject and whose son, apparently, was bold enough to try and buy these forts for what I thought a modest but not unreasonable price. But apparently he has had no answer on the point.

Not living closely to the area, I would not go contrary to what my hon. Friends have said regarding the delineation of Spitbank Fort to Portsmouth rather than Gosport, particularly as it seems to be connected by a ridge and is, therefore, closer and more contiguous, to Gosport. I wonder whether these proposals alter the planning situation. I have been very concerned at an attempt to build across an estuary in my part of the country a jetty, for the loading of iron ore, right across from the South Wales border to very near the edge of my constituency, in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean). We operated together on this and were anxious about the protection of the local authorities if any marine objects were built across the estuary.

It appears that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight might have similar anxieties. I do not suggest that a jetty would be built, but there is the possibility of harnessing water or power supply. There was a second attempt in The Times a few days ago to raise public interest in a complete Severn barrage to harness the tidal waters. The waters are very different in the Solent, but this is relevant. Also relevant is the Morecambe Bay Barrage project, which is connected with the possible building of a nuclear power station and desalination plants at Heysham.

My hon. Friend and I both represent beautiful parts of the country and large centres of population. If there were a water harnessing or desalination project in this area, these forts might be used as centres for the start of the work and one would wish to be assured that the local authorities there are protected with consultation and right of appeal against any such authoritarian attempt to spoil the amenities.

The Assistant Postmaster-General's presence earlier this morning made me wonder whether there might be a connection between him and the forts. What would happen if a pirate radio station were set up on one of the forts? Would this be affected by the Order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member is a long way from the Order. He must deal only with the matter in the Order.

Mr. Webster

I was inquiring, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether there is anything in the Order to alter the existing local situation should anything like this arise. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, will conscientiously look into this and be able to answer the points which have, I hope, been wisely and sensibly put.

11.13 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I have some questions about the Order and a few objections. One Article in the Order is without precedent. Article 2 says that the Order comes into operation on the day following the day on which it has been approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament and for all other purposes on the appointed day immediately after the scheme set out in the Hampshire Police (Amalgamation) Order, 1967 … has become fully operative. I am querying the latter part of that.

In Article 3, we find that the appointed day is 1st April, 1967, as it is under the Hampshire Police (Amalgamation) Order. What then is meant by "has become fully operative"? Does it mean that this Order comes into operation at a particular time of day on 1st April? If so, how is one to know at what time the police scheme becomes fully operative, whether it is 9.30 a.m., 12 noon, or 4 o'clock in the afternoon? It is significant that the day is 1st April.

The Order is made under Section 140 of the Local Government Act, 1933. This immediately makes one wonder why the Government have gone back to that Act. That Section has quite a history. It disappeared from the Statute Book when the caretaker Government of 1945 set up the Local Government Boundary Commission under the Local Government (Boundary Commission) Act, 1945. When the succeeding Labour Government found that the Commission was not working to their party political advantage they dissolve it, by the Local Government Boundary Commission (Dissolution) Act of 1949. Section 140 of the 1933 Act returned amended to the State Book.

As the Section then stood, before an Order was made, the Minister was obliged to hold a public inquiry unless, for special reasons, he thinks that the proposals ought not to be entertained. But that was altered by the Local Government Act of 1958, under Schedule 8 of which the requirement as to public inquiry was no longer to apply if the Minister is satisfied in any particular case that an inquiry is unnecessary. There was no inquiry before this Order was made, which gives rise to two points. That fact and the reason for the Minister being satisfied should have appeared in the Preamble to the Order so as to make it clear that no previous public inquiry has been held in respect of the Order. Normally, when local government Orders come before us, we can be satisfied that there have been inquiries in the area concerned about their content.

The second point which arises from the absence of an inquiry is that the Minister ought not, in the circumstances of this case, to have been satisfied that none was necessary. It is not a case of one local authority taking over an area from another, when good publicity could be expected by the interchanges between opposing or even agreeing local authorities. Notice would be served by one authority upon the other. But this is a peculiar situation, because there is no local authority there at all. The local authority in this case is the Ministry of Defence. In the absence of opposing local councils, how are the public to know that this is happening before the Order comes before us?

I am worried by the precedent of the procedure under which the Order has been brought forward. It is a procedure by Order without public inquiry which by-passes the Private Bill procedure. The Order is an alternative to a Private Bill. If it had been done by such a Bill, there could have been petitions by those members of the public affected. We have no process for Private Order procedure in the same way, although the other place does. I have no doubt that, when the Order is considered there, it will be referred to the appropriate Committee under their Standing Orders—

Mr. MacColl

It has been considered in another place.

Mr. Page

We ought to know whether it has been referred to the Standing Orders Committee. Another place referred similar Orders to its Standing Orders Committee so that petitions could be made against them. If this were a private Bill, members of the public specifically affected would be entitled to petition against it. The Order raises the question, not only whether we should have similar procedure in this House, but whether, in the absence of such procedure, the Minister should dispense with a public inquiry. He ought not to have been satisfied to dispense with a public inquiry.

It is a peculiar situation where the Minister of Defence up to this time has been the local authority. I do not know, and I do not think the House knows yet, what sort of justice was administered in these forts or what it is contemplated to do about justice there in future. Perhaps the Minister of Defence ought to have been here this morning to explain why he does not want the forts and why he is abandoning his powers as a local authority over them. He has declared them surplus to requirements, but what is to happen to them now? Is the Ministry of Defence to sell them before the Order becomes effective, or afterwards?

This affects the Order from the point of view of rateable value being handed over. If they were sold to Butlin's or to a radio station, there would be a handsome credit against the cost of defence, which might please back benchers opposite. It might have a very substantial effect on rateable value being handed over to local authorities.

If they are to be used for any such valuable purpose, what is meant by Article 15? It deals with industrial development certificates, and says: Any industrial development certificate under section 38 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1962 issued in respect of any land in the existing city or borough shall continue at and after the appointed time to have effect as if this order had not been made. Industrial development certificates are normally issued, not for a particular piece of land, but for a particular area. Sometimes they are specifically allocated to a piece of land. Suppose that someone is issued with an industrial development certificate to develop an area in the City of Portsmouth. I do not know whether the words at the end of this article: as if this Order had not been made would enable that person to carry out his industrial development at one of these forts. The effect of the Article seems completely ambiguous.

Perhaps the forts might not be used for industrial purposes but as a top security prison. If they are retained by the Ministry of Defence, or handed over to the Home Office for a prison, will the Crown pay rates? The provisions in the Order relating to rates seem to have been taken out of previous Orders and are particularly inapplicable to these forts. Article 25 ties up with what I said about the question of the Crown paying rates. It says: Any direction for the rating of owners or the allowance of a discount in respect of rates in force immediately before the appointed time in the city or the borough shall apply to the city or the borough as altered. This seems to be quite inappropriate unless the Crown is becoming a landlord and letting these forts.

Article 24, which puts these forts into the appropriate valuation list, ends by saying: and any Fort specified by article 4 of this order may be treated in a valuation list as a parish. Are we to have four little parishes stuck in the middle of the Solent? Article 27 says: Nothing in this order shall affect— (b) any ecclesiastical parish or district; We go back to Article 20 and find that these forts are given parish council powers. I am completely confused as to the effect of the Order in connection with a parish and the powers of a parish.

Article 26 seems very important. It is in common form. It is the Article which provides that: any person who suffers loss of employment or loss or diminution of emoluments which is attributable to the provisions of this order … shall be compensated. Is anyone going to lose employment through the fact that these forts become part of two local authorities? I cannot envisage anyone who would have any right under such an Article. Therefore, the Article seems most inappropriate.

We are not assisted in these problems by the reports from the two local authorities, the City of Portsmouth and the County of the Isle of Wight. The reports are peculiarly unhelpful in solving the problems or assisting us to judge whether this Order is appropriate or not. It is very significant that the two reports are couched in exactly the same words. This rather confirms what my hon. Friend said about the Order probably having been written by the Ministry and these reports having been written by the Ministry, also.

I shall quote a sentence or two from the report by the City of Portsmouth. It says: The forts are controlled by the Ministry of Defence who have declared them surplus to their requirements. The Ministry have decided to dispose of both forts, which are unoccupied. We are not told to whom or when the Ministry intends to dispose of the forts. The report goes on: Hitherto the Minister of Defence and its predecessors have been the responsible public authority for the forts and, therefore, there has been no need for any local authority to have jurisdiction over them. It is not known for what purpose either of the forts may be acquired. It is not known what sort of services the local authority will require to provide there. On whether the House should agree to the Ministry of Defence abandoning the forts, and the Minister abandoning his local authority duties in regard to them, and whether the House should agree to saddle the local authorities concerned with responsibility for the provision of services when we have no clue as to what the services may be, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) said on 8th March: I should like to place on the record that I want to know that in return for the rates which will be levied there suitable services will be provided, such as lighting and police and refuse disposal and other things. These will no doubt need further explanation in the course of the debate. But I should like, particularly, to ask the Minister who is in charge of this Order to consider this carefully again with a view to allowing a changed Order to be brought out allocating each fort to one of the four adjacent local authorities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th March, 1967; Vol. 742, c. 1479–80.] I do not think that the House has sufficient information to approve this Order. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to fill in the blanks. In particular, the inapplicability of many Articles in the Order and the inability fully to examine it, as it could have been examined by public inquiry, makes me wonder whether the procedure by order is correct. It seems to me a quite inappropriate procedure to use in these circumstances.

11.30 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I must express my warm appreciation to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for his questions about the appointed day. I spent the hour before coming into the Chamber in the privacy of my room rehearsing this matter. Those whose painful duty it is to advise me said, "Minister, this is above your intelligence. Would it not be better to leave it to us?". I said, "No. The hon. Member for Crosby may turn up in the Chamber and I may need to use it".

The appointed day, for normal purposes, is the first moment of that day. But it so happens that the police Order comes into operation on the same day, and if it were held that the Solent Forts Order came into operation before the police Order then the outgoing police authority would have to cope with their problems and then a few moments later the incoming police authorities might have to deal with the matter. Therefore, the purpose of the phrase "appointed time" is to make it clear that the time of day in question is after the coming into operation of the new police Order and, therefore, it is the new police authorities which will have to exercise the police responsibilities.

The hon. Member raised a number of other points with which I should like to deal. He asked whether it was wise to use the procedure of making an Order under Section 140 and whether we should not have had an inquiry. He had the impression—and this may be partly due to the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt)—that this was a case of a power-drunk and totalitarian Government forcing this property on the local authorities, giving them no opportunity to consider the merits of the matter and behaving in such an outrageous way that it might well lead to the secession of the Isle of Wight from the Commonwealth, followed by the County of Rutland. That is not what happened.

These forts have been owned by the Ministry of Defence and its predecessors in title for a century, in a no-man's land, in no local authority area, and as nobody was on them and the Ministry looked after them no problems arose. The difficulties were caused when suggestions were made that the Ministry of Defence would like to get rid of them. There was the likelihood, therefore, that they would get into the possession of a private person. It was the local authorities which raised with the Ministry of Defence the question of how best to get over the difficulty that some private exploiter might get hold of the property and develop it in such a way that it was under nobody's control.

That was the problem which, not this Government, but the previous Government had to consider. The advice which they were given was that if the property were put in a local authority's area it would get over the difficulties because the authority would then become the planning authority for the area.

Two of the forts were advertised in the London Gazette and the Portsmouth Evening News and the other two were advertised in the Isle of Wight County Press. What is being done is with the agreement and approval of the local authorities concerned. The allocation to the borough as opposed to the rural district authority was suggested by the county.

Mr. Woodnutt

I am sorry to contradict the hon. Gentleman. I am a member of the Isle of Wight County Council and I assure him that this suggestion was not made by the County Council. It was made by the Government. I do not quarrel with it—I agree with what is being done—but I should like to have the facts straight.

Mr. MacColl

I agree that there is no point in quarrelling about this matter. The hon. Gentleman believes that what is being done is right. I have no direct evidence on the matter, and I do not wish to argue with him. However, my advice is that these proposals were made by the county, which normally is responsible for allocation. I imagine that if for some reason it thought that it was wrong it could alter the decision later by agreement in the county review under the Local Government Act. But, as the hon. Gentleman says, this is probably the best arrangement.

I do not wish to get involved in some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) and the complications about whether if we followed the channels of navigation we might find ourselves in a different area of the county than we would if we went as the crow flies. This would get me into deep water.

Mr. Graham Page

This is closely connected with what I said about notices. The hon. Gentleman said that notices were given to each of the local authorities concerned. But were not they notices to the Press in the Isle of Wight saying that the Isle of Wight forts were to be taken over by the Isle of Wight and to the Press in Portsmouth saying that the forts in Portsmouth were to be taken over by Portsmouth? Portsmouth people might not know that there were four forts, all of which could be taken over, and vice versa.

Mr. MacColl

I imagine that it was done in that way. If we had not done it in that way, we should have been pilloried for extravagance in advertising in the wrong place. The residents of the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth know their coast and know what is their channel. Presumably they can make the appropriate comments. Certainly the local authorities knew the problem. They raised it originally.

Everybody has behaved sensibly in this case. There was a problem. People got together to decide how best to solve it, and they have reached this conclusion by agreement. The sensible thing to do is to accept these arrangements, which can only be for the general public good.

We have been rebuked for putting too much in the Order. It has been said that a lot of the Order is inappropriate. I have not yet got into trouble for putting too much in an order, but I have got into trouble for putting too little in an order. I could imagine the situation which would arise if we went through all the procedure of making this Order and then some indignant old gentleman saying, "What happens to me? I have a claim to compensation". We should then have to start making other orders to deal with the situation. It is important to tie up points like this in these common form Articles.

We have ben asked about the administration of justice and who would deal with the matter now. The Ministry of Defence did not have some sort of almost Gothic powers of life and death on this lonely fort. It was not the local authority in any legal sense. It owned it, and nobody else had any say in it. I presume that military law applied to the people on it, but it had no other responsibilities. The trouble is that if the property gets into normal civilian occupation these problems could arise, and it is important that we should deal with them.

The hon. Member for the Isle of Wight complained about Article 2. Article 4 is the Article which sets out the purposes of the Order and makes it clear. The hon. Gentleman told us about what Mr. Gladstone said in 1860, about the great debate which there was, about the threats of resignation by the Chancellor, and about the final triumph of the spending Department. He went on to say that the forts had never been of any earthly use. What the hon. Gentleman said just showed that there is more to be said for the Treasury than those in spending Departments sometimes like to admit.

The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that we had been misled by the name of St. Helens. I assure the hon. Gentleman that St. Helens has a very different meaning to me, and, I think, to the hon. Member for Crosby, as a contiguous constituency to mine with an extremely good football team which frequently comes to Wembley. St. Helens has nothing to do with the South. I myself should not have been misled.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) asked what would happen in the way of control when the Order was passed, what real powers the planning authority would have and what general powers the local authorities would have. They will have exactly the same powers, duties and responsibilities in respect of this area, as much or as little as over any other parts of their area. If at any time one of the forts was to be developed as a casino or for some other type of entertainment, the local authority would no doubt be able to put a rateable value on it and collect rates. If the local authority cares to pass a resolution now under the Local Government Act to rate the property for the whole of the Borough of Ryde, following such other progressive authorities as Bournemouth and Eastbourne, they would then be able to rate it immediately and the whole machinery would come into operation.

I was asked what could be done about it if the Secretary of State for Defence ran a casino. I think I am right in saying that, if the Crown ran a casino on Crown property the Circular 100 procedure would apply. There would be consultations with the local planning authorities, although the planning law does not apply to Crown property.

The difficult point is what would happen if the Ministry was successful in selling these forts and there was then no means of applying ordinary planning controls.

Strenuous efforts have been made to see this rather mild and largely agreed Order as a great new revolution in local government policy and procedure. We are a progressive and vigorous Government who are always pressing ahead with new ideas, but we would not claim this as being one of them. We regard this as a modest, humble and rather conventional operation which might well get the support of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth (Solent Forts) Order, 1967, dated 9th February, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th February, be approved.